A few days back, the "Today" show, speaking for NBC News, declared Iraq a "civil war," and said the network and CNBC and MSNBC would henceforth use that term to describe it.
President Bush and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow angrily objected. A civil war, said Snow, is when two identifiable armed forces war with each other for control of a government and nation. And Iraq is not that.
Contradicting Snow and the president are most journalists and Colin Powell. Speaking in Dubai, Powell declared, "I would call it a civil war ... because I like to face reality," a smart slap across the face of the president who made him secretary of state by a soldier who feels badly used by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the neoconservatives.
Is this a matter of politics and semantics?
Yes, but it is also far more than that. Those who insist on calling Iraq a civil war are consciously undercutting Bush's case that Iraq is "the central front in the war on terror," that we fight them over there so that we will not have to fight them over here.
Believing him, half the country is convinced we cannot retreat, cut-and-run, for that would mean the terrorists win in Iraq and bring the terror war to the United States. But if Iraq is but a "civil war," most American would say that it's not America's war -- let's go home.
This battle over definitions recalls Vietnam. Those who wanted to stay the course in Vietnam argued that it was the central front in the Cold War against communism, which threatened Southeast Asia today but America tomorrow. Those who had supported the war, but concluded it was no longer worth it, suddenly changed their story to declare it was now a civil war and none of America's business.
What is happening today is that those who once cheered Tommy Frank's march to Baghdad to liberate Iraq from Saddam are trying to rationalize their throwing Iraq to the wolves that the invasion unleashed. America's elite does not wish to admit the truth: that it has no stomach for fighting this ugly and unpopular war into which it foolishly marched the United States.
The baby boomer elite arrogantly and ignorantly led us into a quagmire, as their fathers did in Vietnam -- and now, just like their fathers, they lack the stamina, courage and perseverance to see it through. As they don't want to be held accountable for losing the war, they have seized upon the rationale that it was never our war to fight.
Calling it "a civil war" is a cover for people who wish to cut and run.
What is the truth? Is it a civil war, like the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, when Franco led his armies out of North Africa into Spain to overthrow a regime and end an anarchic situation where priests and nuns were being murdered and Bolsheviks seemed about to ascend to power? No, it is not.
The war in Iraq consists rather of many small wars. The Kurds in the north are seizing and ethnically cleansing Kirkut in anticipation of a day of secession that will give them a nation. Al-Qaida and the Baathists in Anbar are fighting U.S. Marines to expel them from Iraq.
Al-Qaida attacked the Golden Mosque and perpetrated atrocities against Shia civilians to incite the Shia to reprisals and ignite a Sunni-Shia sectarian war. Zarqawi, before we got him, succeeded. He set off the chain reaction that has now a momentum of its own.
The Shia initially backed the Americans and Brits against the Sunni insurgents. Having won power, however, they now are fighting each other over how orthodox the regime should be, and whether the Shia should, like the Kurds, break away and set up an independent state.
The twin pillars of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government are the U.S. military and Moqtada al Sadr, mortal enemies who have fought bloodily before and may well be preparing for a decisive Battle of Baghdad.
Iraq seems to this writer less a classic civil war, like the Spanish and the Russian civil war between "Reds" and "Whites" from 1919 to 1921, than a version of bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of all against all. That is the Latin phrase Thomas Hobbes gave to human existence in the state-of-nature thought experiment he conducted in "Leviathan."
Even our War Between the States was not truly a civil war. For the South did not seek to overturn Lincoln's election, capture the capital or rule the country. The South wanted only to secede from the Union of Abraham Lincoln as their fathers had seceded from the England of George III.
Yet, this argument about whether Iraq is or is not a civil war is deeply consequential for what it exposes. Our elite senses this war is lost, and they are preparing alibis for their roles in what may yet prove the greatest strategic blunder in American history.